The stat that really matters

There is a statistic for everything.

How many times did Ray Rice run the ball without a player lined up at fullback? And, how many yards per rush have the Patriots allowed against offenses with a fullback?

Or what percentage of the time have opposing defenses used five or more defensive backs against New England's two-tight end sets versus the other 31 teams in the NFL?

Or during the regular season, what percentage of Eli Manning's passes on third down went to the chains, and how many yards per attempt did he average in those situations?

Or how many times did Aldon Smith get a sack by using a swim move versus a bull rush, a speed rush or a stunt?

Got a statistical question? ESPN Stats & Information has the answer.

But the only statistic that ultimately will matter during the conference championship games Sunday will be this one: turnover margin. The teams that finish plus-1 or better in turnover margin will most likely be your winners.

Since 2000, teams that have been plus-1 in turnover margin have won 92 of 128 postseason games (a winning percentage of .719). Teams that have lost the turnover battle have won just 14.8 percent of the time.

Historically, if you can't hang on to the ball, you can't win in the postseason. Ask Green Bay. Or New Orleans. The Packers committed four turnovers against the Giants and forced just one, and as a result their spectacular season ended with a cold thud at Lambeau Field in the divisional round. The Saints committed a mind-numbing five turnovers at San Francisco, including two fumbles and an interception in the first quarter, and lost 36-32.

In all eight games of the playoffs, the winning team has finished no worse than even in turnover margin. Houston was plus-3 against Cincinnati, and then Baltimore was plus-4 against the Texans. Force turnovers and you win. Commit them and you go home. It is as elementary as that.

Tom Brady certainly knows this. The last time he faced Baltimore in the postseason was two years ago. The Patriots finished the regular season 10-6 and hosted the 9-7 Ravens in a wild-card game that quickly got out of hand.

New England's first four drives ended with a Brady fumble on a sack, a punt and two interceptions. Baltimore turned the three turnovers into 17 points and led 24-0 before the first quarter was over.

The Patriots lost 33-14. The turnover count: New England 4, Baltimore 2. Advantage Ravens.

The game plan Sunday will be similar. Pressure Brady -- the Ravens sacked him three times in that 2009 playoff game -- and force him into mistakes.

"How important is it to get pressure on the quarterback? Well, you don't want, particularly this guy, to get into a seven-on-seven matchup with your defensive backs, especially when they have a 6-2, 260-pound tight end that runs about a 4.5 [40-yard dash]," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs told the media in Baltimore this week. "You don't want him back there just like, 'Oh, we're just going to play catch today.' You don't want him to zone in, get in his zone, so to say. So I think pressure is going to be crucial, but it's always crucial."

In 20 postseason games, Brady has thrown 36 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. In the 10 times the Patriots have finished plus-1 or better in turnover margin in the postseason with Brady at quarterback, they have never lost. During their Super Bowl run following the 2001 season, New England finished the postseason plus-6. In 2003 they were plus-3. In 2004 they were plus-10, with only one fumble lost and no Brady interceptions.

In the eight games in which they finished even or worse in turnover margin with Brady as quarterback, the Patriots have lost five times.

Protect the ball. Don't put it on the ground. Don't throw it to the defense. And you will win in the playoffs.

After winning their last two games of the regular season to capture the NFC East crown and get into the postseason, and then winning two games on the road, these New York Giants have drawn comparisons to the 2007 team that won the Super Bowl as the No. 5 seed. In going on the road to beat Tampa Bay, Dallas, Green Bay and then New England in the Super Bowl, the Giants finished plus-5 in turnover margin. Manning did not throw an interception in four games, and New York had just two fumbles.

In two games this postseason, the Giants are plus-3 in turnover margin, with Manning throwing a single pick.

All four remaining teams are on the plus side in turnover margin. New England is plus-1. Baltimore and San Francisco are plus-4. The 49ers led the NFL in turnover margin during the regular season (plus-28). New England finished plus-17, New York plus-7 and Baltimore plus-2.

So Rice has rushed 51 times this season without a player lined up at fullback, and the Patriots have allowed just 4.5 yards per rush against offenses with a fullback. New England's opponents have used five defensive backs against their two tight end sets 75.3 percent of the time, while when other teams use two tight ends, opponents have used five defensive backs 15.3 percent of the time.

On third down, 61.7 percent of Manning's passes went for first downs, with an average of 13.0 yards per attempt on those throws, best in the NFL. And of his 15 sacks this season, Smith used a swim move five times, a bull rush 4.5 times, a speed rush 3.5 times and a stunt twice.

Credit ESPN Stats & Information for all of those stats, but on Sunday, pay attention to turnover margin. It will decide which teams advance to the Super Bowl.

Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.